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New York City Council Oversight Hearing: NYC’s COVID-19 Testing and Contact Tracing Program, Part II

Theodore Long, M.D., Executive Director, Test and Trace Corps. and Senior Vice President for Ambulatory Care
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Good Morning Speaker Johnson, Chairwoman Rivera, Chairman Levine, members of the Committee on Hospitals, and Committee on Health. I am Dr. Ted Long, the Executive Director of the Test and Trace Corps. and Senior Vice President for Ambulatory Care at NYC Health + Hospitals (Health + Hospitals). I am joined today by leaders of the Test and Trace Corps: Jackie Bray, Deputy Executive Director, and Annabel Palma, Chief Equity Officer. Also, present this morning are Dr. Andrew Wallach, Chief Medical Officer and Director of Testing; Dr. Neil Vora, Director of Tracing; Dr. Amanda Johnson, Director of Isolation; and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control at the Health Department. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you on NYC’s Plan for COVID-19 Testing and Contact Tracing.

The Test and Trace Corps launched on June 1st with an imperative to test, trace, and take care of every New Yorker who tests positive for COVID-19 or may have come into contact with someone with COVID-19. We are informed of positive COVID-19 results (“cases”), then we rapidly track and monitor “contacts” who were exposed to COVID-19, and manage all cases and contact data. We work with each person who has COVID-19 to connect them immediately to care, and help them safely isolate at home, a hotel, or a hospital and ensure their contacts are swiftly traced, assessed, and quarantined at home or a hotel, as necessary. To reach

as many positive COVID-19 cases as possible, the Test and Trace Corps has deployed a subset of case investigators that are solely responsible for conducting database research and directly reach out to doctors’ offices to track down cases and contacts for whom we initially do not have a phone number. The Test and Trace Corps is also working with a wide range of community-based organizations across all boroughs to broaden its outreach to contacts who may be unresponsive to phone calls through our “Hit Accept” campaign.

In addition, the Test and Trace Corps operates the ‘Take Care’ initiative, the City’s program to help all New Yorkers safely separate to prevent the spread of the virus. Our Take Care program provides free hotel rooms with wraparound services for New Yorkers who are unable to safely separate in their own homes, and supports those who are separating at home with dedicated Resource Navigators. Through partnerships with 11 community-based organizations across the city, the Test and Trace Corps employs Resource Navigators that help New Yorkers overcome logistical issues they may encounter while safely separating in their homes, such as access to basic services like food, medicine, and laundry. To date we have 220 Resource Navigators on the ground and have helped 16,735 New Yorkers quarantine safely whether it be in their home or through hotel support. New Yorkers with COVID-19 are also connected to a comprehensive range of support services such as grocery delivery to help them isolate at home.

To help all New Yorkers ‘safely separate’ at home and monitor their health status, the Test and Trace Corps contact tracers check in with families via daily calls, text messages, and conduct in-person visits as necessary. These calls and texts allow us to gauge the progress of COVID-19 cases and contacts, ensure proper compliance with separation protocol, and connect individuals to more supportive services as necessary. Thus far, we have been able to reach 90% of all COVID-19 cases, continuing to meet (if not surpass) our program goal since mid-June after we launched on June 1st.

For New Yorkers isolating outside of their home at our isolation hotel, they receive transportation to and from the hotels, meals, wellness checks, support services, health home coordination, and home care for up to 14 days. Since the launch of the Test and Trace Corps, 1,350 New Yorkers have been served through our hotel program. At the hotel, meals, clean clothes, and medication refills for anyone who is isolated and quarantined is provided for those who require assistance. Using tele-medicine, Health + Hospitals also performs remote medical checks on those in isolation and quarantine, and evaluates individuals to determine whether they should receive care at a hospital or not.

In August, the Take Care program began shipping ‘Take Care’ packages to New Yorkers who test COVID-positive and to contacts of confirmed positive cases. Take Care packages include a medical grade mask, sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, a pulse oximeter and thermometer. To date, we have shipped 8,744 packages to New Yorkers.

Earlier this month, the Test and Trace Corps also launched the City’s first brick and mortar location within a house of worship. The City is now partnering with the Episcopal Church of St. Alban the Martyr to expand COVID-19 testing sites in Queens while serving communities of color hardest hit by the pandemic.

We know that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, with Black and Latino New Yorkers dying around twice the rate of their white counterparts when adjusted for age. Since the launch of the Test and Trace Corps, over 450 field-based contact tracers have been deployed to neighborhoods across the city, with particular emphasis on those hardest hit by COVID-19, to engage, check in, and gather contacts of confirmed COVID-positive cases.

Community Engagement Specialists also spend time in communities speaking with those contacts who might have been exposed to the virus. Tracers we call Case Investigators support their efforts, working remotely and focusing their time on conducting calls to New Yorkers with a positive COVID-19 test result.

Together with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), we have developed and implemented nimble, hyper-local strategies to swiftly engage communities hardest hit by COVID-19. So far, hyper-local efforts have been rolled out in Tremont, Bronx; Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Soundview, Bronx; Borough Park/Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and; Ozone Park in Southeast Queens. Through this, the City is providing 10 million dollars in grants to community-based organizations – ranging from $50,000 to $750,000 – in these areas to encourage communities they serve to get tested and engage with contact tracing. In these communities, on-site resource navigators are stationed at rapid testing sites across the community, to immediately connect people with services, including hotel rooms if needed. The City is also providing $7.8 million for community-based organizations to promote public awareness around COVID-19 and Test and Trace Corps services. These 39 community-based organizations (CBOs) serve low-income and vulnerable communities across the five boroughs at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Additionally, to ensure the Test and Trace Corps can meet the diverse needs of New Yorkers from all backgrounds, 40 distinct languages are spoken by tracers across our program.

We have surpassed our hiring goals, meeting our milestone prior to the completion of our first month. The Test and Trace Corps has recruited, trained, and hired over 3,600 contact tracers, with the advisement and expertise from 40 of DOHMH’s experienced contact tracers. Together, we manage and ensure the quality of highly effective remote and field-based contact tracer teams.

There have also been many operational achievements since quickly coming up to speed to serve as the City’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. NYC Health + Hospitals has been able to successfully conduct nearly 450,000 COVID-19 tests since mid-April, and currently operating with the capacity to test approximately 60,000 people per day with plans to expand that capacity further in the next few weeks. Currently we are testing approximately 20,000-40,000 people per day citywide. Our contact tracing efforts have been impressive: we are proud to say that of those we have engaged, 96% of cases and 93% of contacts report having not left their home. These percentages are significant when it comes to ensuring that New Yorkers are doing all they can to curb local transmission. The Test and Trace Corps is now reaching 90% percent of all COVID-19 cases citywide, surpassing our initial, benchmark goals. Nearly five months since the program’s launch, COVID-related visits to emergency departments, case numbers, hospitalizations, deaths, and test positivity have been at their lowest since the epidemic began.

All of our progress can be monitored and tracked by all New Yorkers for free and in real time through our Test and Trace Corps dashboard. The dashboard is readily available on our website and is updated weekly. In doing this, we are able to help all New Yorkers feel safer in their city, and demonstrate that our efforts are actually working.

The Test and Trace Corps is committed to ensuring that every New Yorker can access free and confidential testing, receive the care they need, and safely isolate to combat any further transmission. Through our robust and citywide partnerships, we will continue working with the City Council to educate and help New Yorkers fight COVID-19. Besides getting tested, we want to remind all New Yorkers to follow the “Core Four” steps: stay home if you’re sick, wear a mask, social distance, and keep your hands clean. Again, thank you for your time this morning and the opportunity to speak on this program. I will answer any questions you may have.